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Opinion The vice-presidential debate actually matters this time

Banners hang on Kingsbury Hall at the University of Utah in Salt Lake City before Wednesday’s vice-presidential debate. (Jim Urquhart/Reuters)

Never before in U.S. history has a vice-presidential debate been so crucially important for the country. Rarely before, too, have the stakes for the candidates been as high.

Not only are Vice President Pence and Sen. Kamala D. Harris (D-Calif.) as different as night and day politically, but also they present an inescapable demographic contrast between two Americas. Harris, of Jamaican and Indian descent, and Pence, quite possibly the Whitest man in the country, bring different life experiences and represent what many see as the future and the past.

Demographically, as well as politically, it seems the future is brown and female. America’s past, as pollsters and pundits never tire of reminding us, is White and male.

Should such things matter? Obviously, what matters most are character, intelligence, experience and beliefs, combined with temperament and those incalculable human qualities we’ve been missing these past four years — empathy, sincerity, warmth, wisdom, seriousness of purpose and, so important, humor. Self-deprecation, something we’ve seen in presidents going back generations, is a sign not only of confidence but also of humility. Donald Trump is the first president I can recall who clearly has no idea what I’m talking about.

While it is customary to evaluate whether a vice president is presidential material should circumstance warrant, such warranting is a serious matter this time around. Democratic nominee Joe Biden is 77 and, though it can be uncomfortable to discuss, is increasingly showing his age, even if he seems healthy and sharp most of the time. The number 80 looms large in any presidential calculus. Trump is 74 himself and, oh yes, currently is infected by a deadly virus.

Post Opinions columnists will offer real-time commentary on the vice-presidential debate. Follow along starting at 8:45 p.m. ET on Wednesday.

Thus, the compelling questions: Does America consider Harris, who dropped out of the Democratic primary race early because of her weak standing, ready to be president of the United States at a moment of enormous uncertainty and upheaval? Her résumé, which includes serving as California’s attorney general and a U.S. senator, needs little buffing. Ironically, her prosecutorial record, in some ways, reads more conservative than the liberal, Black Lives Matter emissary she has become. Then again, voter volition is more complex than political biography.

For Pence, the test is different. What has he become after almost four years as one of Trump’s closest advisers and supporters — one who, protected by the Constitution, couldn’t be fired?

The vice president is no slouch either, as résumés go. Before joining the Trump team, he was governor of Indiana and a six-term member of the U.S. House. Most likely, however, the image most people likely conjure up of him now is silent sentinel over the president’s shoulder. He’s very much more than that, however. Newt Gingrich has said that Pence is, after Trump, one of the few people with the most policy influence in the administration.

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When, just a few days ago, Pence seemed poised to take over the presidency (at least temporarily) when Trump fell ill with covid-19, the nation was suddenly forced to consider what that would be like. Given how things have gone these past days, perhaps they thought they could get used to it. On Monday, in one of his oddest performances to date (which is saying something), Trump stood at attention on the White House balcony and held a sustained military salute like something choreographed by Kim Jong Un’s propaganda machine. This signified — what? That the commander in chief, newly home from the hospital, was reporting for duty?

What to know about the 2020 presidential debates

In the same news cycle, a manic Trump irresponsibly and dangerously advised Americans not to fear covid-19.

So voters can be forgiven as they watch Wednesday’s debate and imagine a different future.

Is America ready, if not now, then perhaps in 2024, for a President Pence? A President Harris? At least there’s a solid chance people can form an opinion after tuning in. Unlike last week’s angry, incoherent presidential debate, which was anything but presidential, Pence and Harris can be expected to discuss the issues like normal politicians. There may be occasional barbs, but if you’re interested in how the two tickets’ policies differ, this is the one to watch.

For now, it seems that for a growing majority of voters, including in swing states the polls say are drifting toward the Democrats, a Harris administration would be better than a second Trump term. Yet, if Trump does make a comeback, it could be because of Harris. From my own reading of conservatives, many would happily vote for the familiar Biden but fear his potential succession by Harris, who they believe would turn the country hard to the left. A strong and credible performance by Harris on Wednesday could allay some of those fears.

In 2020, Joe Biden and Donald Trump may be the headliners, but, clearly, Kamala Harris and Mike Pence are far more than also-rans.

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Read more:

Michael Gerson: If that debate was not the bottom of our public life, God help us

Jennifer Rubin: Here’s how Kamala Harris puts the nail in the Trump-Pence coffin

Jennifer Rubin: What Mike Pence needs to tell us about coronavirus

Jennifer Rubin: Here’s how Trump’s recklessness affects us all and the VP debate

Eugene Robinson: What country does Mike Pence live in?